It has been more than 6 months since I last posted on this blog. This period involved crises at a personal level, a lot of reading, some shift in opinions from those expressed earlier and overall, a very useful experience in life. I am grateful to have faced these challenges and for the opportunities to learn.
During this period, I felt the need to organize my knowledge so as to avoid returning to the same points repeatedly and getting muddled. As a consequence, I restart my return to blogging on this portal with a criticism of selected points in an article by a neuroscientist that I happened to read recently and which are representative of comments made by others in this discipline. I am using this criticism as a way of expressing my state of mind. The old me is still around as will be evidenced by the reference at the end to Rabindranath Tagore. Some things still haven’t changed.
The link to this article is: https://aeon.co/essays/the-hard-problem-of-consciousness-is-a-distraction-from-the-real-one
Anil Seth, the author of this article, is professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex, and co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. In his article whose link is provided above, he discusses his perspective on the challenges in consciousness.
There are problems with this article that are widespread in neuroscience studies and emanate from a particular lack in understanding.
Problem 1: (Direct Quote) This is an intriguing and powerful proposal, but it comes at the cost of admitting that consciousness could be present everywhere and in everything, a philosophical view known as panpsychism.
Why is admitting panpsychism a cost? The process of science must be clear whether it wants to dabble with metaphysics or not. What would be the cost to science if panpsychism turns out to be true?
Problem 2: The author repeatedly uses the word “measurement” in relation to consciousness.
Consciousness cannot be measured. What the scientist measures is electrical signature of the brain or some other signature that is an outcome of the processes in the brain. Nobody is measuring consciousness. There are no dimensions or units of consciousness.
The scientist measures the signature in the physical correlate (the nervous system) of consciousness or of mental activity.
Can science ever figure out consciousness?
Success appears extremely unlikely. The nervous system and its signature are available only to consciousness. An entity, that is not conscious, would not be able to entertain the concept of “neuron”. All truths of science are true to the human consciousness only. Attempts to explain consciousness away end up explaining the process of scientific investigation away because the latter is an activity supported and understood by the former.
All so-called physical events are known only as mental events. This is because all human knowledge is mental. It is impossible to talk about knowledge while not acknowledging that the knowledge belongs to or exists in a state of consciousness or the mind. Even a sophisticated alien race may not be able to make head or tail of all our science, logic or mathematics, as much as animals and birds have difficulties.
Just as our senses have evolved for survival, our logic too must have evolved for survival and not for the investigation of truth. This must be the reason we find the discoveries in relativistic physics or quantum physics counter-intuitive.
Scientists like Stephen Hawking have pointed out that questions like “Where does the universe exist?” or “When did the universe originate?” are not valid questions. Our ability to frame a question does not make it valid.
Likewise, our ability to frame statements does not make them valid.
Consciousness is not a thing or object – like other objects – to be studied in similar manner by science. The best science can do is study the signature of consciousness on things or objects that can be studied.
Saying that the brain and the mind are the same is nonsensical if one does not define what “same” means. Is it “same” as a one-rupee coin is the same as another one-rupee coin? In what sense are they same? Are “brain” and “mind” the same forms of knowledge? The brain is known to the mind. The mind is known on account of its existence.
Forms of neutral monism and even dualism that posit the existence of mind and matter separately or in a unified configuration make a basic error. Mind and matter are not categories available to the same vantage point. The conscious mind is itself the vantage point in which matter, even the brain with all its neurons, is recognized. There is no other way of knowing other than through the conscious mind. A vantage point outside the mind, which knows the mind in the same way as it knows matter, is not available to us.
The existence of the conscious mind has to be acknowledged to entertain knowledge of matter and its properties.
It is not disagreed that some physical reality can exist independent of the mind. Our mind itself reveals that the universe existed before we, conscious minds, came around. The key thing to appreciate is that scientific knowledge is not independent or absolute. It belongs to the human conscious mind and and is about the physical reality in as much as it is revealed to the former through direct perception or through analysis.
Thinkers like Daniel Dennett, drawing from the theory of evolution, seem to consider that consciousness emerged in relation to its utility in survival and the level of consciousness developed over time. The octopus is sort of conscious. We are more conscious than the octopus is.
While I do not have a direct problem with the idea of more pronounced expressions of consciousness over the course of evolution, Dennett is making assertions about certain things he has no way of knowing.
It is as much possible that the brain creates consciousness, more / greater quality of it, through the course of evolution as much as it is possible that consciousness is fundamental to reality and the brain just filters or modifies it. The latter consideration is more plausible since there exists no clear way of explaining the existence of consciousness by merely analyzing neuronal activity. Basically, we need to come to terms with the difference between explaining the existence of something as opposed to explaining what that something correlates with.
It must be noted that I entertain no doubts that science will discover more and more about the physical correlates of mental activity. But, it appears impossible, in principle, to explain consciousness as it is. Any explanation or even description of consciousness – say information, integration, etc. – are merely concepts available to the conscious human mind itself. It must be recognized that consciousness is unique and is nothing like what science has dealt with.
Until that is made abundantly clear, both scientists and media reports will keep getting excited about things that they cannot even know. However, their childish desire to succeed in proving naturalism, materialism or physicalism seems to repeatedly draw them away from this clarity.
The great thinker, Rabindranath Tagore (who is present in almost every post on this blog), expresses the above beautifully in his conversation with Albert Einstein:
Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind. … In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.